When I started learning about concept-based learning, one of the things I frequently came across was the constant (negative) criticism towards content. Clearly this made me inquire more into the nature of the reason why educators had developed this kind of ideas about content when, clearly, if I was to believe concept-based is effective I would have to understand how I became an inquirer when I was clearly educated in a content-based system in Mexico.
Educators would say things such as: ‘the world is changing’, ‘knowledge is changing’, ‘content just focuses on facts while concept focuses on making sense of those facts and the world around us’; and I would tell myself, but that is exactly what my teachers in primary and secondary used to tell me. I remember how my geography teacher would ask us to think as we think in mathematics when looking at data in maps; I remember how language teachers would ask me to write in a more scientific manner as I was asked to do in biology or physics; and I even remember my physical education teacher explaining exercises or routines using concepts of mathematics and physics.
Were they teaching conceptually without knowing it before this concept was nailed? – I wondered. Yet, when I thought of the amount of content I saved in my notes (I still have m notebooks!), I realized that they also taught me a lot of content. Possibly they had found a way to balance both.
I remember reading something this: ‘we can’t possibly teach everything that is important, but we can teach the big ideas’. I instantly thought about how my teachers did not teach me everything, but they taught me a lot, and most importantly, they taught me how to find new information and how to figure out if the information was useful. In other words, the more I read about the beauties of concept-based learning, the more I was convinced that content was somehow needed, maybe not as a priority, but as a ground to make connections. We cannot make connections with what we do not know, and I am still thankful to my teachers for teaching me so much, for teaching me to find connections and to learn to transfer from one subject to another.
It wasn’t until I came across this idea: ‘Information is useless unless you can do something with it and, therefore, concept-based learning is a framework to study everything, because content can change, concepts stay the same’ that I realized the gift my teachers had given me: use what you know to understand and contribute to the world, in whichever tiny or huge way you can.
As I said, they taught me to establish connections between subjects; they taught me to group information and understandings in drawers that I could open whenever I needed to access such ideas; they taught me to interact with what I was being taught and to consider how new learning that I was experiencing in one subject had an impact on another. My teachers were gifted human beings who inspired me to become a teacher as well.
So how do we teach conceptually?
While finding out how the big ideas we are to explore are connected to other areas of knowledge (identifying the defining attributes for the concept), it is also important to consider the structure and organization of information in order to design a path for the learning experience in which every new understanding both supports the creation of new ones and welcomes connection and influence for all other understandings that can be related to them: not only would be we looking at connections to what is before and after, but also to what is on both sides.
If I had to explain teaching in a concept-based scenario to my 7 year old nephew, I would use ‘ingredients in a recipe’ as a metaphor for, ultimately, the combination of concepts or related concepts that I choose will depend on the course of the inquiry I want to design and upon which I will have little or no control for students’ insights will clearly shape how the process evolved.
So let’s cook change in the foreign language class.
Clearly, the first ingredients that I would need are time tenses, and then I would have to consider the interest of those I am cooking for; I would also have to think of whether they know how to use the instruments and tools used in eating the dishes I will make.
Since cooking and eating is like story telling, I would have to think about the stories I would share as we are sitting at the table and perhaps even about the questions that may arise and the related stories that will emerge. Maybe somebody will know a recipe better than mine, or perhaps someone may use ingredients that turn this process into a different exploration.
And since dishes are like books, I must be aware of the stories behind them; how they came to exist into this wold; how they spread across the globe; or whether they are apart of a civilisation’s legacy. Are these processes related to historical times? And how about quantities and cooking procedures?
Everything is useful and interesting!
I am NOT solely teaching and contrasting time tenses! All pieces of information in the real and virtual space are waiting for me to use them and cook with them; and most importantly, they are waiting for me to ask questions about their constant transformation, as well as mine.
What’s your recipe?